Updated and revised May 31, 2012
He loved children.
The man and his wife had parented 75 foster kids in their suburban home encircled by a white picket fence. He worked in marketing for three Chicago ministries, going on to establish a support network for foster-care families.
“Long before we got married … we agreed we wanted to have large families,” the man told a Christian publisher in 2009. “We thought it would be fun to have a lot of children.”
And then, the man was arrested in February on charges of sexually assaulting two of his foster children, one 6, the other 12 at the time. Journalists present at a court hearing report that a prosecutor said that this individual confessed verbally to police of nights spent drinking before coming home to engage in sexual contact with these two children, now young adults.
We at Christianity Today recognized the mug shot. For nine years, he was our coworker in a non-editorial role.
The story came to us right before another: a Wheaton College Christian education professor arrested for possessing with the intent to disseminate pornographic images of chidlren under 13, a very serious felony.
And now today comes another tragedy, with the news that Voice of the Martyrs executive director Tom White, a source, partner, and friend to several of us here, apparently committed suicide to avoid an investigation into an accusation that he had molested a young girl.
These events brought a sickening dose of reality to our hallways. These stories don’t signal a trend, and the cases are unrelated. The accused foster parent and former professor separately appeared in their respective courts and pleaded not guilty to all charges. The defense attorney for the foster parent has said there is no signed confession. We affirm the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial as soon as possible.
But these cases also signal that faith-based institutions can no longer assume that predators are somewhere “out there,” over the clean Christian rainbow. They are not just in college locker rooms and Catholic rectories either. They are on our evangelical faculty and work in our community nonprofits, and we must respond to them in a way that bears the judgment—and mercy—of the gospel of Christ.
To this end, with the counsel of experts in sexual health, we offer two principles for the Christian community in responding to child sex offenders and preventing such offenses.
First, we must prioritize protecting innocents. In recent years, we’ve witnessed a movement among churches discerning how to include ex-offenders into the community of faith. No doubt many lives have been transformed in the process. Still, when the well-being of children and the inclusion of offenders conflict, we believe a gospel-shaped community should prioritize protecting the most innocent among us, whose violation invites drowning by millstone (Luke 17:2).
“There is something about exploiting children that even our sexually permissive culture gets: that you don’t touch children—even murderers in prison get it,” observes William Struthers, a neuroscientist at Wheaton College. Our culture’s prevailing response tells us something true about child abuse: Not only is it biologically abnormal (prepubescent children aren’t capable of relating sexually), it’s devastating for those who endure it.
Practically speaking, all this will require more proactive preventive measures than many ministries are used to. Parents can help children develop clear physical boundaries, recognize inappropriate behavior, and strengthen that feeble “no” into a shout. Faith-based institutions are wise to develop a strategy of, “If an employee reports observing danger signals from a coworker, here’s how we will respond.” A clear policy for network and computer scans is wise. Background checks for all who interact with minors are obvious. Most important, it means teaching that working with children is not a “right” or an unchecked “calling.” If a former abuser insists on ministering to children, their request should be denied. “The truly repentant person is not likely going to apply to be restored, because he doesn’t want to fail again,” notes Mark Laaser, who works with abusers at his Minnesota-based recovery ministry. “If a person is humble, the restoration question becomes moot.”